The moment will be lost in the show of a home opener. The moment will be buried because of 13 hits and seven runs and the first win of this new Royals’ season.
The moment will be buried because Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar are still looking for their first hits, and because a sellout crowd sat through football weather to watch baseball, and even because Greg Holland pitched a dominant ninth inning.
But if you’re looking for one moment from the Royals’ 7-5 win over the White Sox on Friday that’s relevant for the rest of this promising season and beyond, you should look straight at Wade Davis and his overwhelming eighth inning.
“We’re probably going to throw fastballs a lot this year,” Davis says.
He threw fastballs with all but four of his 17 pitches, working around a two-base error by right fielder Nori Aoki by striking out Adam Eaton and Marcus Semien on fastballs. That’s one inning, four outs, and a potential disaster deleted with 11 pitches measuring 94, 95 or 96 mph.
“Just go in, let it ride,” Davis says.
In the immediate future, this is a positive sign as Davis is the eighth inning bridge to All-Star closer Holland. The bullpen gave up two walkoffs in Detroit, and Davis was part of the first. There is a legitimate,non-freaking-out-over-small-sample-size reason
to believe the bullpen will regress after being baseball’s best last year.
Davis will be among the crucial few to decide whether that happens, Luke Hochevar’s season-ending elbow surgery pushing Davis from the rotation and middle relief to the setup role. The Royals wanted Davis to be a starter when they brought him over in the Wil Myers-James Shields trade, but right now they have a big need for a dominant late-inning reliever.
Hochevar’s injury robbed the Royals of the depth they planned around in the offseason, so everyone but Holland moved up one spot in the bullpen hierarchy. As the eighth-inning man, Davis will wear more of that pressure than anyone else, and the indications are all positive — big league hitters are now at .176 with a .260 on-base and .275 slugging percentages against him as a reliever.
The Royals don’t need the bullpen to be quite as dominant as it was last year, which is a good thing because that’s nearly impossible. But the way this team is built, the bullpen has to be very good. Has to be among the best in the American League.
Hard to imagine that happening without Davis being among the best setup men in the American League.
“Wade competes,” Yost says. “Like (Holland) and all our relievers, they have tremendous belief in their abilities.”
Another thing to keep in mind is how this relates to the Royals’ future — because Davis may be the closer.
He’s making $4.8 million this year, with team options for $7 million in 2015, $8 million in 2016 and $10 million in 2017. Holland is making $4.7 million this year, and even if he regresses from an overpowering 2013 he figures to make more than Davis the next two seasons before hitting free agency.
Consider Baltimore closer Jim Johnson, who went from $2.6 million to $6.5 million after an All-Star season in 2012. He wasn’t quite as dominating in 2013, but with baseball’s arbitration structure, is making $10 million this year. Holland could be on a similar trajectory.
Maybe the Royals could work out a long-term deal with Holland, but at this point it would be expensive, and the unpredictability of relief pitchers means extra risk for the team. Even with David Glass green-lighting another franchise record payroll this year, it’s hard to imagine the Royals paying $15 million a year for two one-inning relief pitchers.
So if it becomes a decision between Davis and Holland, Davis brings more cost certainty (for one more year) and Holland would bring back more in a trade.
This is all speculation, of course, and the Royals are (finally) in enough of a win-now mode that the most important part is that Davis further establish himself as a reliable relief pitcher.
In the bigger picture of importance, he’s behind Billy Butler hitting for more power, Mike Moustakas finding his groove and Yordano Ventura fulfilling his potential, among other indicators. But especially after Hochevar’s injury, the Royals probably need a steady season from Davis to make good on all this promise.
And even in years like this, the Royals will always have to account for the future.
Depending on a few things, Davis may be an even bigger part of that future than you think.